By on November 21, 2019

While the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has gradually evolved its testing procedures since its inception, it has hit the accelerator over the past few years, eager to crash into a new era of knowledge… Alright, so it actually just wanted to assess problematic crash trajectories and headlight safety for insurance companies. Still, they’ve been making meaningful changes in a bid to boost overall safety.

On Thursday, the institute said it plans to continue evolving its crash-test procedures. It claims it’s gotten so good at developing side-impact assessments, “the current side ratings no longer help consumers distinguish among vehicles or point the way toward further improvements.”

The solution? Slam bigger, heavier items into a vehicle’s profile and see what happens. 

“This is an opportunity to build on what we’ve learned in more than 15 years of side testing,” said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller. “We’ll update the things that need updating, but we don’t need to throw out the things that still work well.”

Basically, the group feels the current metrics it uses to assess damage/injury are fine. It plans to use the same dummies and equipment inside the victim car. The only real change is the ferocity of the impact, as it believes the old standard was working so well that the automotive industry no longer has any incentive to make additional safety improvements.

From IIHS:

The IIHS [side] test proved more challenging than the NHTSA test because the movable barrier mimicked the height and shape of the front end of the typical SUV or pickup on the road at the time. IIHS also used dummies representing a small woman or 12-year-old child. The combination of these two things meant that the barrier struck the vehicle at about the height of the dummies’ heads.

To achieve a good rating in the test, automakers strengthened side structures and equipped vehicles with head-protecting side airbags ahead of a federal regulation that made them essentially mandatory. Only about 1 in 5 vehicles tested earned good ratings in the beginning. Today, 99 percent of rated vehicles earn a good rating, and the remainder are acceptable.

The improvements translated into lives saved. A 2011 study of 10 years’ worth of crash data found that a driver of a vehicle rated good is 70 percent less likely to die in a left-side crash than a driver of a vehicle rated poor.

The IIHS is looking for gaps in its testing, noticing that hitting an automobile with a mobile barrier (which can be crashed repeatedly) doesn’t behave exactly the same as striking a car with a real SUV. Barriers create a more uniform impact zone and can often push a car away. But a vehicle with a less uniform surface can create hot points that push further into the victim car, potentially even pitching it toward the impact zone. They’re also likely to weigh more than the 3,300 pound barrier.

While still in the exploratory phase, the IIHS is toying with the idea of increasing the barrier’s overall weight to 4,200 pounds (the average weight of a 2019 model SUV), reshaping its face, and upping impact speeds to 37 mph (from 30). Muller said the combination generates 82 percent more energy than the group’s current side rating test — likely forcing a bunch of previously good-rated vehicles into the gutter.

“Our goal is to create a barrier that creates the same type of damage as a typical late-model SUV or pickup would in a 37 mph crash,” Mueller explained. “That way, we can be confident that the changes automakers make in hopes of achieving good ratings in the new side test will result in better protection for vehicle occupants in real-world crashes.”

[Images: IIHS]

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

37 Comments on “IIHS Wants Bigger, Harder Crashes for Its Side Impact Tests...”

  • avatar

    I think a safety rating should have some metric of historic incompetence attached too. Like a “company safety competence rating.”

    Reductions today for:
    Previous headlights whose lenses went bad in less than 15-20 years.
    Incompetence in ignition key design, tracking, diagnosis, and action.
    Frames and chassis parts that rust out too quick in the north.

  • avatar

    These types of organizations are tough for me.

    On one hand, we all desire safer cars, with better headlights, etc. These organizations test them, publish the data, word gets out, the desire to have good ratings makes the cars better etc.

    On the other hand, with anything in life there is definitely cost. Do you choose to engineer to the test, so you get the green stars, but it costs $2000 more per vehicle to do it? What if such cumulative changes mean that someone that could afford a currently safe, quality, new car is now priced out of the market, leaving them in an older, less safe car? Or in a bid not to raise prices, are they skimping in other areas? Your car is safer in the crash for the time it is alive, but what if that cost cutting elsewhere sends what would otherwise be a running, driveable, solid car to the junkyard prematurely? For those that never end up in an accident, that might not be a good trade-off.

    • 0 avatar

      You make an excellent point. The five start scale, or whatever, is merely a comparison to other cars and is not quantitative. If one car gets only three stars does that mean it’s not particularly safe? I think it just means that a number of other cars did better. The rating system should be an absolute value and not determined as a ranking to other vehicles being tested. Then you can quantify the safety value of a car and weigh its other merits at the same time. I always felt that good visibility, good handling and steering feedback, easy to modulate brakes all contributed to safety but those things aren’t weighed at all.

      • 0 avatar
        Matt Posky

        Big ups to both of these comments.

      • 0 avatar

        You all make excellent points.

        I would add this: Increased impact protection correlates to increased mass.

        Increased mass correlates with increased cost—but it directly correlates with increased fuel (or electric) consumption, and hence increased air pollution and CO2.

        We all breathe the air.

        So while I think it’s good to have objective criteria to give AN IDEA what is LIKELY to be safer, I am against legislating and forcing car-makers to build to higher theoretical standards, which in reality will only add cost and pollution, without necessarily making the occupant safer (Probably is not the same as DEFINITELY), and simply deprives consumers of the choice of buying a newer, less expensive vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Why should the family that can afford (or will adjust their other expenditures) to spend $2000 more for a safer vehicle lack the option to have that safer vehicle in an effort to keep costs down for someone who may or may not actually buy a new vehicle?

      Not everyone needs to buy a new vehicle. Given how reliable cars are, “new” is a luxury. If you can’t afford luxury, but what makes sense – a used vehicle from a manufacturer that can build safe vehicles that last.

      • 0 avatar

        Why should consumers be forced to pay for something they don’t want?

        Beside the $ cost, we pay with clumsier handling, increased fuel consumption, and increased emissions.

        I’m not saying ‘safer’ vehicles should be banned. There is a market for them, auto makers can continue making them.

        And if there is not market for lighter vehicles, automakers can drop them.

        But mandating more mass denies us the choice of lighter cars.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    I believe the lede photo (of the F150 impacting the Accord) is one of the leading reasons why traditional sedan sales are crashing. Nobody wants a grille upside the head.

    • 0 avatar


      Yes. Agreed. One is correctly to fear with current PIG UP truck sizes. What are they now? a solid 5/4 s or bigger than the perfect sized 1992 F 150.

      Ever notice how PIG up drivers rarely put their vehicles in the middle AND STRAIGHT between the lines in the parking lot?

      Reflects the way they drive doesn’t it?

      We have these types at work. Me first, me second, me third, F you !!!

      • 0 avatar
        R Henry

        I attribute poorly parked vehicles with driver incompetence more than driver arrogance…then again, I am an optimist….

        • 0 avatar

          Incompetent but not arrogant drivers will park, realize they’re way off, back up, park again, realize they’re still off, back up, park again, and thereby block traffic in the parking lot for a couple minutes but end up in the right place.

          Incompetent and arrogant drivers inevitably end up taking just enough of the neighboring space to make it impossible to park there.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s the automotive arms race. What will pickup drivers do if car drivers switch to tanks? Will they still love their now vulnerable pickups?

  • avatar

    How soon before everyone has to drive something the size of a sleeper semi cab to survive in traffic?

    Is there any hope for a pedestrian in that world? (Current pedestrian and cyclist death stats say no.)

  • avatar
    Rick Astley

    So the timeline goes something like this:

    1: everybody has cars so we crash test car against car, commercial vehicles are exceptions

    2: CAFE standards incentivize making larger vehicles for the purpose of avoiding fuel economy compliance

    3: Now everybody (the majority of new car owners) have big, hulkingly large unnecessary vehicles which still aren’t as fuel effecient.

    4: Testing must be changed which will promote larger, less efficient vehilces

    I mean, with all of this, why not just remove CAFE loopholes based around footprint and weight of vehicles, plus the absolute boondoggle which is passenger pickup truck emissions exemptions (farm exemptions, of course, but city-dwellers should be paying out their urethra’s if they need a “city truck” to haul around their massive balls), and promote adequately sized passenger cars which achieve higher efficiency and economy?

    • 0 avatar
      R Henry

      The scenario you ably illustrate is precisely why Free Marketers advocate their cause. Government regulations often fail the “common sense” test. Free marketers believe consumers should have the right to purchase whatever car they consider best–flimsy or stout, fuel efficient or powerful enough to tow a yacht up a steep grade at 70mph….

      • 0 avatar

        And yet ironically IIHS is a “free market” NGO funded by the insurance companies that has gained de facto regulatory powers, primarily due to marketing cred. The vehicle manufactures brag about conforming to IIHS ratings in their sale pitches.
        IIHS core mission is decrease insurance claims to enhance the insurance industry’s profits.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, but in a collision, there is no perfect vehicle. The heavy and top heavy SUV/pickup is much less able to avoid side impact from a sedan/compact, quickly vary direction/speed/etc, which even though low cars cause very little initial injury to large/up high vehicle occupants (in T-bone type collisions), they flip over way too easy, at any speed, you just have to look at them wrong, not to mention their occupants are far less likely to be belted in.

      Perception vs reality.

      Still large pickups are the hottest sellers, but by no means the majority of vehicles out there.

      Regular sedans/coupe drivers/occupants don’t have a clear disadvantage. A compact car tapping a front wheel of a semi truck can easily send it out of control, and semi truck drivers/passengers have the least safety protection of any vehicle occupants, especially with 60K lbs of goods tailgating closely behind.

  • avatar

    So, they keep assuming larger and larger vehicles will hit us. That places a greater compliance burden on smaller vehicles to take a hit from a vehicle twice as heavy as a small vehicle.

    Now that the Big Three have just about abandoned the small vehicle market, why not just outlaw smaller vehicles as “inherently unsafe” and force everyone to pay up for a 4,000lb SUV? The Big Three and the oil industry would be delighted.

  • avatar

    Come on everyone, who doesn’t want a 4,000 pound Corolla.

  • avatar

    If collision heights could be standardized, that would go a long way towards improving crash safety.
    When I’m in traffic looking at a brodozer pickup whose crankshaft is at my eye level that thought crosses my mind from time to time.
    A quick internet search indicates that t-bone crashes account for some 25-30% of fatalities, so concern about them is reasonable valid.

  • avatar

    If an Accord having a side impact done by an F150, what is used to do the side impact test for a F350? A train? For those drivers who fail to stop, look, and listen at level crossings.

    • 0 avatar

      I suspect the typical driver *vastly* underestimates the weight and momentum of a train. (It is easy to do an offhand ‘size’ comparison based on the locomotive and maybe 2 freight cars that you see approaching.)

      In reality, a typical freight train could weigh ~6,000 times as much as a 3-ton F-350. So the train sees an Accord as ~0.01% of its mass, and an F-350 as ~0.02%. (40 ton 18-wheeler would be ~0.22%.)

  • avatar

    Replace the windows in that Accord with more impact-resistant steel. From the inside, monitors can be fitted throughout the vehicle, 360 degrees, fed by external cameras. We’re already preparing to do this with side view mirrors, so it’s just the next step. Won’t someone think of the children?

  • avatar

    Could this new testing be funded by the car makers who gave up sedans?

    I’m sure they are eager to prove how right they are.

  • avatar

    Hey, strengten the hit cars by adding more steel. Hence making the cars crashing into them, also such strengthened, heavier. Requiring more steel and more weight….

    If endangering others lives imposes a cost on them, the optimal equilibrium is best found by ensuring the cost is be borne by the guy doing the imposing. Not by way of some arms race trying to pawn the cost off on the guy being passively hit.

    In the contest of this, that means crashing the vehicles, then tacking on a fee to those vehicles who do more damage to those they hit. And handing that fee back in the form of a subsidy, to those vehicles who do less. Do that, and you just about may get somewhere halfway efficient and non silly.

    • 0 avatar

      … motions toward the jar on the shelf of the escape room which contains a piece of paper with a single word scrawled on it… “Composites”

      • 0 avatar

        Next to the “Pixie Dust” one, no doubt.

        The issue is not a materials one. You can always make composite structures more crash resilient as well, by making relaxing weight requirements.

        Instead, there are two weights ultimately determining damage likelihood in an otherwise similar crash: The weight of the vehicle crashed into (assuming optimal crash resistance for the weight budget of the design), but also the weight of the vehicle doing the crashing.

        As long as no amount of test results are fed back into reduction of the latter, it will keep rising and rising and rising. Forcing the weight of the “crashed into” vehicle to do the same. Resulting in a never ending arms race into ultimate inefficiency of exactly the same result which could be obtained by both vehicles being much lighter. IOW, an absolute waste of scarce resources.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • slavuta: This is how you do it
  • Michael S6: BBB , Bring Barbecue Bacon to the unions.
  • jkross22: mcs, I appreciate your honesty saying you don’t have numbers. ER numbers are going down in Southern...
  • gasser: No need to wait for the Fed to hike interest rates back up. When Putin invades Ukraine, the sanctions put on...
  • mcs: jkross22: As far as COVID patients that had to be hospitalized in California, it’s mostly unvaccinated. As...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber